This blog is part of the “Diversity: God’s Design” curriculum series.
Abby Endashaw works for Mennonite Central Committee Central States as the young adult programs coordinator. Born and raised in Aurora, Colorado, she has recently relocated to Dallas, Texas, the ancestral land of the Wichita, Tawakoni, Kickapoo and Jumanos Indigenous peoples. Her work with MCC emphasizes community-centered programming, antiracism education, and supporting local partners doing peace and justice work. Before joining the MCC Central States staff, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and master’s degree in professional counseling from Dallas Baptist University; she also worked as a community therapist for children and women survivors of trauma. When Abby’s not planning young adult programs or zipping around with MCC’s international volunteers, she is likely clicking “play next episode” on Netflix or feverishly preparing for one of the three book clubs she is in at the moment!
In my work, I have the privilege of conversing with young adults who are committed to serving their local, and even global, communities. I work most closely with participants in MCC’s International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP), a program in which college-educated Christian young adults from Anabaptist constituencies around the world volunteer a year of their lives to work and live in the U.S. These volunteers live with American host families, work with MCC’s U.S. partners in various fields and regularly attend their local, often Mennonite, churches. These volunteers sacrifice a lot — their comfort, independence and families — to follow their conviction to serve and connect with the global body of Christ. Despite the rich experience that these young people have in the IVEP program, it is also true that their journeys do not always go as smoothly as expected. Daily, our international volunteers (or “IVEPers,” as we call them) find themselves contending with the differences between their home cultures and the new culture they experience stateside.
Imagine spending a year in a new country. Each Sunday, you attend church, but the worship is different from that which you are accustomed to. The sequence of service, the liturgies, the frequency, and style of communion may be new. You may observe significant differences in the interpretation and application of the Bible. After church, as you drive home with your host family, you notice it is your “host Mom” in the driver’s seat — just one example of the differences in gender roles in your culture and the new culture you are experiencing. During family meals, you wait for your host parents to begin eating before you serve yourself, but before you know it, your younger host siblings have served themselves. After some time, your host father asks, “Would you like seconds?” Politely, you decline, and as he quickly turns to put the leftovers in the fridge; you wonder at how quickly he accepted your response, rather than insisting you take seconds.
From their colleagues, IVEPers learn about American work culture: What is professionalism? How late is late? Informal office meetings and coffee breaks that may be “normal” for those steeped in American culture can be intimidating to a newcomer. How does one know when a breakroom conversation is public or private? Will I be invited to join the coffee break, or must I invite myself?
Each of the awkward moments, little tensions and even significant conflicts that arise as they uncover cultural differences are invitations to learn not just what these differences are but why they exist to begin with.
By observing the many complex relationships in one family, IVEPers gain insight into American cultural beliefs, values, and practices around raising children, gender roles within a marriage, and how a family manages conflict — or not! Through observing the many processes and policies in a work environment, an IVEPer not only gains new skills and competencies but can gain insight into the cultural values that inform these policies and procedures. An IVEPer working as a mechanical engineer may be asked to attend a safety orientation before operating power tools at their assignment. This safety demonstration shares guidelines to safely operate the equipment, lays out the emergency protocols and ensures that participants sign a liability waiver accepting the risks of these activities. An IVEper who is new to this type of protocol will gain a new skill related to operating machinery and can observe the way different American values influence this process. If, through the demonstration, the IVEPer notices that their coworkers are supportive and helpful to them, they may learn that collaboration is a central value of the company’s work culture; similarly, if the IVEPer notices their coworkers focusing on themselves, rather than their colleagues, they may learn that independence is a central value of the company’s work culture. A state or national mandate requiring this safety protocol suggests that the government values worker care and considers itself responsible for ensuring it. The liability waiver is indicative of the company’s interest in protecting itself. All these are indicators of work culture — the values, beliefs, and attitudes informing corporate practice and policies — that an IVEPer may be hyperaware of as a visitor to the culture may not be noticeable to us, because we all participate in it every day.
The Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) is an assessment of one’s “intercultural competency” and helpfully offers a tool for us to reflect on our capacity to see cultural patterns and better understand our own culture. Beyond being able to identify which behaviors differ among cultures, the IDI prompts one to ask why these differences may occur. What are the cultural values and beliefs that inform these different behaviors? This initiates a process of deep reflection and deep empathy, both towards one’s own culture and a culture one is unfamiliar with, which are the building blocks of personal and systemic change.
A common misconception I have observed in the work of anti-racism or intercultural competency is that the focus should be solely external — on unjust systems, exclusionary institutions or even those family members.
While the goal of anti-racism work is of course to ultimately impact meaningful change within these structures, one of the most valuable concepts I have taken from the Intercultural Development Inventory is the importance of reflecting on our individual and collective cultures.
The United States is home to millions of people with diverse cultural backgrounds. This dense cultural diversity may not as often produce a culture shock compared to what IVEPers experience going to a new country, but these cultures are no less meaningful. The coasts, the South and the Midwest have different regional cultural norms. Not only do we speak in different dialects, but we also often have specific regional cuisines. In my home state of Colorado, the cities of Denver, Boulder and Rocky Ford have distinct cultural differences, too. These differences span from the age demographics of residents to the top industries in these areas; from their leisure activities to their prominent attitudes, beliefs and deepest-held values. Narrowing the scope even further, in my family home are three generations of Ethiopian Americans. Among us are several different language fluencies, educational levels, religious backgrounds and sociocultural identities. These are all different facets of culture that deeply impact the ways we interact with the world around us: from the churches we attend to the jobs we pursue, each of our individual cultural norms shape our lives in different ways. Sometimes these differences complement each other. Other times, they conflict. And other times, they are ignored.
For an IVEPer, the year spent abroad can allow them a hyperawareness of their own culture, which is invaluable. From work culture to family dynamics to spiritual practices, they are stretched to re-examine each part of their culture, and that self-examination can lead to valuable system-level evaluation. However, this process of self-evaluation and critical analysis of systems of power within our culture is possible for us who inhabit the U.S. as home, though it requires the same kind of discomfort, the same little tensions and even significant conflicts, as we turn inward and reflect on the many facets of each of our cultural backgrounds. And most importantly, it renders us a similar opportunity to reflect on how our ordinary practices reveal deeper attitudes, beliefs and values that impact the work we do together.
To that end, I not only recommend that all individuals take the IDI assessment, but I invite communities to engage the IDI as a useful tool to facilitate community and individual cultural reflection and develop a shared language and understanding as we continue to navigate our differences together.
Explore “Diversity: God’s Design,” MC USA’s new multimedia curriculum that uses biblical reflections to introduce the importance of intercultural competency as part of Christian growth and formation.